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Governments should not just install new infrastructure but ensure residents can take advantage of the access, experts say.
If governments are to truly close the digital divide, they must focus on encouraging community broadband adoption and making sure residents have tools to access high-speed internet, not just on installing infrastructure, experts said earlier this week.
While there has been a lot of recent talk about the need to better map broadband availability, panelists at Nextgov and GCN’s Emerging Tech Summit warned that there must also be a similar emphasis on ensuring that people can take advantage of internet access, or else some communities will not feel the benefits.
“Especially as demonstrated throughout the pandemic, digital equity needs to be a part of both access and adoption strategies,” said Francella Ochillo, executive director at internet equity nonprofit Next Century Cities. “Otherwise, we're not going to be able to get connectivity over the threshold of someone's front door.”
And while investing in new broadband networks is a tangible way for communities to show they are closing the digital divide, adoption among residents remains a major barrier. Ochillo said that challenge stems largely from the way internet buildout has been funded in this country. Most investment is spent on physical infrastructure and very little on encouraging adoption, building digital skills and offering robust subsidies on monthly bills to those who need them.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed the inadequacy of existing digital access programs up to that point as millions of students and workers were sent home and told to work remotely. Even residents who lived in neighborhoods that had internet access may not have had the equipment, know-how or extra money to sign up for service.
“It's not enough to hope your state has enough tax revenue to be able to carve out money in some state bill that is assigned to helping improve adoption for a very small portion of the population,” Ochillo said. “We know that millions of Americans, even people who are the working poor, who do not qualify for government programs, do not have the tools that they need to actually experience digital citizenship and benefit from technology.”
In a bid to reverse that trend, the Federal Communications Commission in 2021 introduced the Affordable Connectivity Program that offers up to a $30 a month subsidy for eligible households to spend on internet service, as a successor to the COVID-era Emergency Broadband Benefit program.
Still, federal officials said they need more help promoting the ACP from state and local officials. During a committee meeting at the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel called for mayors’ help to promote ACP to their constituents in a bid to ward off what she called a coming “affordability crisis” that will face families who want to keep paying for broadband.
Rosenworcel also noted that ACP could run out of funds in the next year without congressional action and could be the subject of a “funding fight” in Congress as lawmakers debate whether to renew it. With mayors’ help getting residents signed up, the FCC can demonstrate the program’s popularity and long-term viability, she said.
Ochillo also called for “sustainable models” to support the nonprofits and community groups that partner with local governments to sign residents up for ACP.
“We don't want to put governments in a position where they're already hesitant about endorsing, but don't have the resources to do a full investigation or full throttle endorsement of the program,” she said.
On the infrastructure side, open access networks, where the fiber is built out and then leased to internet service providers (ISPs) who compete for customers, are among the most promising community-based solutions to deal with the digital divide, said Brian Donoghue, Next Century Cities’ deputy director. He noted that in some cities like Ammon, Idaho, officials have been successful in encouraging competition between providers while driving down costs and increasing speeds for users.
Next Century Cities is also enthused by municipally owned networks like that in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and by investments in Wi-Fi mesh networks. Donoghue said that while his organization’s members have used various infrastructure-based solutions to close the digital divide, there is “no one-size-fits-all model.”
Ochillo noted that many areas that pursue a less-traditional infrastructure model “don't pursue it willingly,” but instead have been “backed into a corner” by ISPs reluctant to invest in their communities. A smaller user base or high up-front costs associated with building out the necessary infrastructure makes broadband expansion financially unsustainable for many providers.
As they look ahead to potentially millions of federal dollars to help boost internet access to their residents, local governments must be “explicit about what they need” and hold ISPs and other entities accountable if those needs are not met with promised service, Ochillo said.
Without that “baseline connectivity” that gives residents a “fair shot at being able to get online,” governments risk “separating people” that cannot benefit from the internet and new technologies as they do not have the tools, knowledge or money to take advantage of its features.
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